So here’s my question: If Trump’s going to make America great again, when was America last great? And what was so great about it?
Here in the South, where I’ve lived nearly all my adult life, the temptation is to wonder if the segregationist 1950s isn’t what some of the president’s keenest supporters have in mind. You know, pre-Brown vs. Board of Education, pre-Voting Rights Act, when fundamentalist preachers and racist night-riders with guns held social and political veto power across much of the region.
It’s certainly true that having a black president sent a significant proportion of fearful white folks clear around the bend. To be sure, people who succumbed to Trump’s “birtherism,” who believed that Barack Obama grew up a Muslim in Kenya, hated white people and brought Sharia law and socialism to the United States are clearly out of reach, politically speaking. (Never mind that it was mainly Yankees with names like Hannity and Napolitano that popularized this nonsense on Fox News.)
But to ask the question is partly to answer it: No, the great majority of Southern voters have no ambition to turn the calendar back to 1955. For example, did you see that exciting neo-Nazi/KKK pep rally outside Newnan, GA the other day? Flaming swastikas and guys in brownshirt uniforms chanting “Sieg, Heil!” always make for compelling video.
Except here’s the part you may not have seen emphasized on TV: approximately two-dozen brownshirts were outnumbered by several hundred protestors and a reported 700 state and local cops who kept the lid on. The hardest part was keeping the stormtroopers from getting their pasty white butts kicked. They’re not scaring anybody any more.
The episode reminded me of a 1990 Arkansas GOP primary in which the Grand Exalted Demento of the KKK blundered into a runoff race for Lieutenant Governor. Most observers thought Ralph Forbes’ name must have sounded familiar to low-information voters, possibly because of his occasional pronouncements on behalf of the American Nazi Party.
The would-be Sturmbannführer’s opponent was a former Razorback defensive back (and friendly acquaintance) named Muskie Harris. (We both volunteered at a Little Rock Boy’s Club.) After the media highlighted the irresistible angle of a black man versus a Klansman, Arkansas Republicans made themselves emphatically clear: Muskie won with 86 percent of the vote.
Forbes insisted he’d been cheated. Told that early returns showed him trailing in Pope County, where he lived, by 68 votes to 8, he told a reporter: “I’ve got more than eight kids, for crying out loud.”
The eventual total there was 571-79.
So no, we ain’t having none of that around here.
Yes, Arkansas is now a “red state.” But no, its fundamental political culture hasn’t changed all that much, and the same can be said for much of the region. All of which makes Trump’s success in the South a bit of a mystery on the personal level. He’s the kind of New York blowhard most Southerners instinctively dislike.
So I can’t help but wonder if the lure of Trumpism hasn’t already begun to wane. Even in the South, are GOP congressional candidates running as adepts of the president’s cult of personality making a mistake? No doubt Trump’s coded racial appeals, his attacks on immigrants, upon the press, and his bombastic calls for imprisoning his political opponents (“Lock her up!”) resonate with a certain segment of the population.
But here in Arkansas, we’ve seen all this before, specifically during the 1955-67 governorship of Orval Faubus of Little Rock Central High fame — ancient history nobody’s keen to repeat.
What’s more, for all his bluster, Trump has failed to deliver. He couldn’t get Obamacare repealed. The vaunted GOP save-the-millionaires tax cut remains justifiably unpopular. Majorities nationwide disliked his pandering to white supremacists in Charlottesville. Most think repeatedly hanging the “dreamers” out to dry is mean-spirited and unfair.
The great majority of Americans want special counsel Robert Mueller to get to the bottom of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. If Trump’s so innocent, many believe, maybe he should act that way.
Writing in the Washington Post, Greg Sargent worries about Republican Senate candidates in West Virginia and Tennessee who are running on building Trump’s wall, locking Hillary up, making football players salute the flag, and the rest of it. He mentions the recent Virginia gubernatorial race in which the Republican candidate made Confederate statues a big issue.
“The question all this raises, he writes “is whether there is a large swath of GOP primary voters who are fully prepared to march behind Trump into full-blown authoritarianism.”
Maybe Democrats should hope they do. The Virginia candidate lost badly; the president’s boosting of mini-me candidates in Alabama and Pennsylvania failed badly. What’s more, if Trump hasn’t gotten his fool wall yet, why would anybody believe it’s going to happen after November 2018?